The potential value of golf courses as bird sanctuaries is hidden in plain sight.
Golf courses are open areas that are kept free from building and development. They have trees and water features that, from a golfer’s perspective, add both beauty and peril, while, from a bird’s perspective, provide nesting and feeding areas.
From ibises to cranes to wood storks, how often have you seen birds on a golf course? So it only makes sense that there is an Audubon Society program that encourages and recognizes environmentally friendly golf courses. And, given the natural beauty and the history of environmental protection in the Vero Beach area, it’s not surprising that several Audubon-approved courses are found right here.
The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program golf courses in the area include both courses at Grand Harbor Golf & Beach Club (River Course and Harbor Course); both courses at The Moorings (The Moorings course and the aptly named Hawk’s Nest course); Vero Beach Country Club; Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club; the John’s Island West Course; and both the Dunes and Lakes courses at Sandridge Golf Club. Indian River Club is part of the Audubon Signature Sanctuary Program, a related initiative with even more stringent requirements; for Signature Sanctuary status, a golf course must be designed and built to Audubon Society specifications from its inception.
For golfers who are also birdwatchers, or who simply appreciate nature, the benefits of an Audubon course are expressed enthusiastically by Grand Harbor general manager Michael Gibson. “I’m kind of new to the property, and I had never seen a white pelican, ever.” This is despite the fact that he
had lived in Palm Beach Gardens for 25 years. Grand Harbor, however, has over a hundred white pelicans during the winter season, and when they began to appear in November, Gibson was amazed. “I was on the putting green and I had eight white pelicans that flew over my head! It’s just a wonderful thing.”
Gibson is not alone in his enthusiasm for these returning migrants. “Our membership is so excited when the white pelicans arrive.” Even some of the other birds are happy to see them. Cormorants are among the birds that reside year-round at Grand
Harbor, and Gibson relates, “The cormorants welcome the white pelicans too—it’s like they’re excited.” A case of animal friendship? Perhaps, but there is also a practical motive. “The cormorants follow along and catch the fish that the pelicans miss.”
The different fishing strategies that these species use make their efforts complementary. White pelicans work together to herd fish into a small area; then, each pelican will scoop up fish in its bill’s enormous gular pouch. Cormorants, on the other hand, will dive and swim under the water. A cormorant can plunge as far as 25 feet below the surface and remain underwater for over a minute, emerging with a fish of its own.
Deborah Fletcher, founder of Grand Harbor Audubon and a board member of Grand Harbor Golf & Beach Club, notes, “Water is a great resource for us.” The pelicans and cormorants would surely agree. Treating that resource in a responsible way is part of what Audubon certification is all about. “People think of golf courses as spraying all kinds of bad chemicals, and we don’t do that,” she says. Waters are tested for purity at least twice a year.
Audubon International provides all participating golf courses with support and evaluation in several areas: water conservation and quality; chemical reduction; site assessment and environmental planning; habitat management; and educational outreach. At Grand Harbor, outreach has included informational panels being set up at key points to educate residents about birds, butterflies, and native plants. There is even a special Grand Harbor birdwatching pocket guide. Birdwatching walks also provide education for the members, and they serve as opportunities for an annual census—with an average of 40 species of birds identified each time.
Grand Harbor Audubon president Bob Joy recently had an experience that speaks to the economic value of the program. “I met a couple who were new members, and they said they chose Grand Harbor because of the Audubon certification program. It meant that the ethics, practices, and aesthetics of the community were going to be maintained.” And from the golfer’s perspective, Joy observes wryly, “it adds a whole other dimension to playing.” He laughs. “For those of us who are lukewarm golfers, we tend to get distracted by the birds—or at least that’s my excuse.”
Nesting areas are provided as part of the program, including platforms where ospreys can build nests, birdhouses, and plastic gourds that serve as nesting boxes for purple martins, which return every January. “The male scouts first, finds a spot, and comes back with his bride,” Fletcher relates. In due course, you can see “the little heads peeking out of the nest.”
The purple martins of Grand Harbor also have a connection to a moving story from a human family. Fletcher had read about a man in the area who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and who chose to spend the last year of his life building a large and beautiful birdhouse. The birdhouse took at least two people to carry it, and it became known as “the palace.”
His wife wanted to give it to a place where it would be used and appreciated, and Fletcher wrote to her.
“I invited her out and took her to the first holes of the golf course. The purple martins were there, the sun was shining, and it was just beautiful.” Touched by the idyllic nature of the place, the widow chose Grand Harbor as the home for the palace. Fletcher recalls, “We put it up, and that very weekend, the martins came.” Each year after that, the widow would also return, bringing her children with her, to see the purple martins nesting in the birdhouse.
At Indian River Club, members entering the clubhouse are greeted by John James Audubon prints of birds they are likely to see: sandhill cranes, little blue herons, and a tricolored heron. The Audubon Signature Sanctuary status of Indian River Club is likewise historic. “This is only the second golf course in the world” to attain this certification, explains golf course superintendent Bobby Wallace.
Protected wetland areas on the course, bordered by vibrant greens, are undeniably beautiful. “It reminds me of a savanna,” says Wallace. There is also a 2-acre scrub jay habitat adjoining the course. There, the endemic—and imperiled—Florida scrub jay has an environment in which it can thrive. “We have a scrub jay watch in June, during their mating season,” wherein the population is tallied. This census is handled by Pelican Island Audubon Society, a key ally of Indian River Club in all avian matters.
Great horned owls have sometimes been seen nesting at Indian River Club. Wallace recalls a sprawling banyan tree where these “tigers of the sky” made a nest, and where he was able to observe downy owlets. Water hazards for golfers serve as fishing spots for birds; at one lake on the course, a bald eagle can be seen fishing almost every morning. At another lake, ibises and ducks can be observed along with an osprey that, curiously, is often seen wading in the water and splashing itself—almost as if it thinks it is one of the ducks!
As superintendent, Wallace appreciates the natural beauty of his “workplace.” He is especially fond of a spot overlooking the ninth hole, where a vista of variegated marsh grasses can be viewed and the song of birds often fills the air. “Sometimes you have to stop and listen to the music,” he says.
The Audubon sanctuary golf courses in the area and the Audubon Signature Course at Indian River Club, are great assets to Vero Beach. They combine a beloved sport with environmental protection. And they are wonderful places to listen to the music of birdsong.
Some of the species on the Indian River Club Bird Survey for 2021-2022:
- American kestrel
- Bald eagle
- Belted kingfisher
- Black-bellied whistling duck
- Black-and-white warbler
- Blue-gray gnatcatcher
- Cedar waxwing
- Cooper’s hawk
- Downy woodpecker
- Eastern phoebe
- Florida scrub jay
- Glossy ibis
- Greater yellowlegs
- Green heron
- Green-winged teal
- Indigo bunting
- Lesser yellowlegs
- Loggerhead shrike
- Painted bunting
- Palm warbler
- Pied-billed grebe
- Pileated woodpecker
- Pine warbler
- Purple martin
- Red-bellied woodpecker
- Red-headed woodpecker
- Red-shouldered hawk
- Roseate spoonbill
- Sandhill crane
- Solitary sandpiper
- Spotted sandpiper
- Swallow-tailed kite
- Tree swallow
- Tri-colored heron
- Wilson’s snipe
- Wood duck
- Wood stork
- Yellow-rumped warbler